“I’m not so interested in belief’, Susan told me. She leaned forward in her seat, opposite mine. “Try using faith.”
Dr. Susan Harding, professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, was interviewing me about my experience attending an evangelical church as an assignment for her course on American evangelical cultures. She was writing a sequel to her first ethnography, The Book of Jerry Falwell, and sent out an email to her students asking to interview us about our experience. Susan was, and still is, my academic hero — I signed up for the chance to hang out with her for a few hours.
Throughout the interview, I frequently used the word belief to describe how myself and others see the world and relate to it. About an hour in, Susan suggested I try using faith instead of belief when talking about God. A belief is something that can be accepted or rejected. It’s contestable. Beliefs are reserved for faeries, Santa Clause, and the inherent goodness of the human spirit. No one believes concrete is hard; no one ever says, “I believe I breath air.” We have faith in the undeniable truth that concrete is hard and we breath air.
Faith, Susan told me, is akin to how we feel about, say, a bank. We rarely, if ever, think twice when we deposit a check. The 2008 Recession, the 1929 Depression, and John B. Macklemore aside, we don’t often sit around worrying whether our banks lost all our money in the last hour. When we see little numbers on our account statements, we, at least most of us, don’t doubt that we actually own that many dollars and cents, that it exists somewhere, safely, and that we will be able withdraw it when we need to.
The functioning of daily life in a post-industrial society exacts faith from its participants in all sorts of ways. We have faith that the power grid is functioning, and are unpleasantly surprised if the room stays dark when we flip a switch. We have faith that a cashier will agree that a ten-dollar paper bill signifies ten units of currency. The privileged have faith that police officers won’t shoot them. We have faith that our friends and lovers will call us back or think of us on our birthdays. That our surgeon knows what she’s doing. That trains and busses will arrive on time. That God rewards our goodwill in Heaven. That the stock market will always recover, the tree next to our car won’t fall over while we’re sleeping, real estate moguls turned reality T.V. stars would never become president, the garbage man will come every Thursday.
Susan and I had this conversation about five years ago. I’ve been reflecting on it lately, as I delve deeper into contemplative practice. Daily contemplation and meditation loosens one set of faith-based expectations and assumptions as it nurtures new ones — the focus of my faith is shifting from personal security to the certainty that there is none, and that it’s ok. At my best, this practice arouses kindness, awareness, curiosity, and honesty. At my worst, it makes me a little crazy.
When I stepped onto an airplane earlier today, I had a moment of doubt. What if the rolling walkway leading to the plane jerks and sends me for a twenty foot drop? That’s never happened before, and I never thought to question the safety of stepping onto a plane. I just assume someone somewhere wouldn’t let that happen to me. I glanced around for a safe anchor to clutch in case of emergency. The yellow gate just before the end of the walkway looked pretty solid.
Faith is an invisible handrail that guides passengers as they step fearlessly from the walkway to the airplane. Its opioid quality screens us from the unpredictable precariousness of the moment. I ask myself, which insanity is preferable: comfortable faith in patterns and normalcy despite the threat of world (or ankle) shattering disruptions, or paranoid faithlessness?
Susan is someone who appears acutely aware of her own assumptions. She doesn’t seem to have collapsed into paranoia. In fact she usually seems like she’s having a pretty good time, unless she’s avoiding the students who hound her for letters of recommendation — myself included. I recognize a similar quality in dedicated meditators and practitioners I’ve met in the past few years. Unattached to expectations about how the world functions, they fearlessly enjoy life in uncertain spaces.
You can count on someone like me to subvert this relaxed and happy outlook into occasional mania. Thus far, if I start to feel disoriented or paranoid, all I can do is give a good exhale and try to drop it. Next time I take out the trash, I might worry, what if the trash guy doesn’t come? The garbage will be sitting out here for another week. Maybe longer! The lid of the garbage bin won’t close with all the built up trash. Decaying banana peel goop will seep through… and relax. Gross that dog bone is still… just drop it. The rats will go after those used… and keep trying.
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